By Harry Buschman
Somewhere in Westlake Village someone is dying, or 'passing on' as we like to say. But since we are a biweekly, it may be two weeks before his or her obituary appears in the "Guardian."
Passing on, therefore, may take a month or more.
If our paper printed every day, each and every elderly person in town would have an obituary pre-written and ready to slip into that old obituary page at a drop of a hat. But, as I said, we are a biweekly and we have the luxury of waiting until old man Springer dies before we eulogize him. He may, in fact, be all settled in before his obituary hits the street.
When Lucas, (my publisher) and I were in the big time, obituaries were written so far in advance that the deceased would have difficulty recognizing him or herself. The term, "is survived by," often neglected the fact that the deceased had remarried and had a new set of survivors, or that his or her spouse had 'passed on' previously and was in no condition to survive anything.
Lucas Crosby looked wet and very sober when he walked in. He hung his black fedora on the hook next to my baseball cap, then he draped his dripping raincoat over the back of a chair in front of the hissing radiator.
"Helluva day to visit the hospital," he said.
Stacey looked up from buffing her nails, "still raining?" She asked.
"Like a bitch," he grumbled. "Hadda walk near a mile from the parking lot to emergency."
"Shoulda brung yer umbrella," she grinned. "Y'forgot it – it's right there hangin' on the hook."
One of the benefits of being a girl, especially one as pretty as Stacey, is that you know you're not going to get punched in the mouth when you say something like that to Lucas. Therefore, he turned to glare at me.
"Better get ready on that obituary. Y'only gotta coupla weeks, and y'know how slow you are."
"Come on Lucas, the man's still living – wait'll he's dead for God's sake."
"I guarantee he's outta here by morning."
"My five to your ten?" I suggested, knowing that Stacey would put up half of my five.
"You got it, he's a goner." He looked at Stacy and me and wiped a crocodile tear from his eye, "One of the greats." He sniveled.
Manny Springer, or more accurately Emanuel P. Springer owned the "Guardian" lock, stock, and barrel. He had been rushed to the hospital the previous evening with chest pains. He is one of those people you often hear called, "a founding father'. However, he is nothing of the kind. His great grandfather was a founding father. Manny is a wimp. A bloodless offspring clinging to the outermost branch of the Springer family tree; out so far that the sap never reached him.
The Springer's were a second class family to begin with. They had none of the panache of the Astor's, the Cabot's or the Rockefeller's. The Springer's merely owned "Frog Hollow," a depression in the earth of Long Island in which potatoes were grown. It is now a debt ridden and polluted suburban wasteland called Westlake Village, and while it is very dear to me for personal reasons, I've got to admit, a motorist wouldn't slow down to give it a second look.
I waited for the rain to let up then drove off to the library to brush up on my Springer's. Mrs. Kibbens, the librarian, does not take kindly to newspaper people, especially when they request reference material on founding fathers. She owes her job and the library itself to the Springer family.
"It's not our policy to divulge private family information." She drew herself up to her full height of five feet two and straightened her glasses.
"It's not private information, Mrs. Kibbens. They've been written up in "Who's Who."
"Well, you're not getting any of their private correspondence or the pictures of the old farm, so there! Some day a legitimate biographer will come here looking for them and what will he think? I ask you – what will he think when he finds that you and that disgraceful Marcus Crosby have been rooting around in them?"
"His name is ‘Lucas,’ Ma'am."
"Whatever!" She narrowed her eyes and looked at me suspiciously. "Why are you spying on the Springer family anyway?"
"Manny Springer's dying, Mrs. Kibbens. I have to write his obituary for the Guardian."
Her mouth described a tiny "o," as though she were about to blow a smoke ring. I suppose it was cruel of me to put it so bluntly, but she's such an ill-mannered old bitch. In the thirty years I've known her she's considered the library to be her personal property. Kids must be as still as statues and leave at five o'clock; they can't come in at all on Sunday, and God help them if they have to ask her a question. She'll shake her finger at them and say in a sing-song voice, "That's what the card file is for."
I sat down with "Who's Who," then filled myself in on some old newspapers in the microfilm file. Before the rain had started again I knew more about the Springer family than anyone would ever want to know. I wondered what might happen to me if I wrote this obituary truthfully. Old Manny Springer had sold his grandfather's farm to a shopping mall management company in which he was a major shareholder. He sold all the retail properties along Westwood Avenue to a holding company, and owned a controlling interest in them as well. On top of that, he was able to wangle a ridiculously low tax rate out of the town assessor. He pays less in property taxes than I do!
That's the kind of thing people like to read about. If I wanted, I could have included the messy details of his first two divorces. Another juicy tidbit would have been his involvement in a pedophile round-up last summer in which a Grand jury judge decreed he was only attending a boy scout overnight sleep-out. I printed out the old newspapers and said a pleasant good afternoon to Mrs. Kibbens. She had been on the phone ever since I broke the news. There was a box of tissues on her desk; tears glistened on her puffy cheeks and her glasses were fogged over.
In spite of the weather, I arrived at the Guardian in a jovial mood.
"How do you want me to handle it, Lucas?"
"Wadd'ya mean, handle it?"
"Manny Springer. Look," I zipped open my briefcase and spilled out the clippings and photocopies. "The guy's a menace. There's the record. 'Who's Who,' newspapers, school taxes, property taxes, a fortune in alimony, the vice squad – everything."
"Aw, I din't ask ya to dig up that stuff! that's rumor – you know that! A lotta people, people just like you by the way, pig out on that stuff." His eyes grew misty. "Don't you have no respect? Where would this town be without guys like Manny Springer?"
"We'd be paying less property taxes and the police would be patrolling the neighborhoods instead of Westlake Mall, and sure as hell the old ancestral Springer farm would still be standing."
You can push Lucas just so far and I figured I had gone about as far as it was safe to go. I knew that Lucas owed Manny Springer a lot. The Guardian's property assessment was laughably low, lower than the bungalow I live in. Springer had seen to it that the Guardian was permitted to have a telephone tie-line to the Police and Fire Departments, free refuse removal, and all the political advertising for the local Republican Party. Lucas wanted a glowing obituary to Manny Springer more than he wanted one for himself.
He gathered up my research and deposited it in his waste basket. "I want NICE, see! Somethin' nice! You go back to that fancy word processor of yours, Mr. Crusader – Mr. Fourth friggin Estate – s’cuse me Stace, and you tell all the good people of this here Westlake Village that when Manny Springer was taken from us we lost a saint, understand!"
I can take a hint as well as the next one. Jobs don't come easily to men my age, and besides, Stacey was giving me that, "Go sit down, you know how he is," look.
It's quite easy to write fiction, and making a saint out of Manny Springer went down easier than chicken soup. I ignored the ex-wives and the sordid affair at the boy scout sleep-out. I forgot all about the bull-dozing of the ancestral estate and the fact that Manny now owns the mall it once stood on. I concentrated on his contributions to Westlake Village, which were largely contributed by his father and grandfather.
Lucas loved it. He held it in front of him as a man might admire a precious illuminated manuscript, then he walked across the room and pinned it to the bulletin board. He set it in a tasteful black border and announced that it would be in the center of the front page above the fold, "Not below, mind you, above the friggin fold!"
"Hey, Stacey – looka that. How d'ya like that?" He always liked to get a woman's opinion on matters of taste.
She tilted her head critically and chewed her gum slowly. "Jeez, that's heavy, Mr. Crosby. Y'want I should read it too?"
"No, that ain't important. I read it. Just tell me if it looks okay."
"Looks great, he'll love it."
We had a slight argument, a discussion really, on the spelling of the title, "In Memoriam." For some reason Lucas thought it was spelled, 'memorium'. Frankly they’re both wrong.The finer points of the English language are difficult for Lucas, it's only recently I convinced him that the Guardian was a biweekly. He thought it was a bimonthly – "Twice a month, right?"
He left later that afternoon to visit Manny at the hospital again. He wanted to be in at the kill, so to speak, to ingratiate himself with the ragtag remnants of the Springer family.
It was nearly 10 a.m. the next morning when he showed up at the paper. He was not in black. I took that to mean he owed me ten dollars.
"How's Manny, Lucas? Still hangin' in there?"
"Yeah, they took him off oxygen and he was sittin' up this morning." He almost looked disappointed as he fished in his back pocket for his wallet. He pointed at Stacey while looking at me. "You two go halfies like always? Here, make your own change."
After four days in the hospital, Manny Springer was sprung. He was in better shape than he'd been in years. Matter of fact, he and the third Mrs. Springer were planning to go to Aruba. Lucas, on the other hand, did not look well at all.
"What's up with you, Lucas?
"Nothin,' I'm fine, lemme alone."
Stacey stepped in, "You ain't been the same since Manny Springer got outta the hospital." She popped one of her Olympic sized bubbles and sat in the visitor's chair in front of his desk. "We're family, Mr. Crosby – you can tell y'family."
"Get outta here, Stacey. Pull'ya skirt down and ... and get outta here. I'm all right, go – lemme alone."
She sighed and flounced off to her desk. Lucas watched her go. I sat by the word processor watching the blinking cursor. The post office clock on the wall seemed to tick with it in an un-syncopated rhythm. Stacey and I looked at each other and shrugged.
Finally Lucas leaned back in his ratty old executive chair and shook his head ...
There was a long pause, so I broke in, "Well, in a manner of speaking, Lucas. But ... yeah, I guess maybe we'd like to know what the hell's wrong with you."
"Manny Springer! That no good bastard – he's what's wrong with me!" A rosy blush was creepy out of his collar and inching its way up his neck. "Know what he went and done? He sold out, that's what he done! Sold the mall and all these properties along Westwood – this building here, home of the Guardian, he's dumped it. Pulled outta Westlake Village! Like a thief in the night, like his name wasn't Springer!"
"So what?" I ventured.
"What are you – some kinda air-head? Stacey, I can understand – but you oughtta know better. Manny's dumped everything, he's stayin' in Aruba – ain't comin' back. Remember his big black open limousine that used to glide down Westlake on the Memorial Day Parade with him and that floozy third wife of his in the back seat? Well, no more you won't. He's pulled out, that's what he done. He's sold out to a holding company, a bunch'a shysters from New York!"
It began to dawn on me. All the perks – the cheap rent – the Republican Party camaraderie – the tax breaks – the advertising – the police protection, everything that made life easy and profitable for Lucas had been snatched away from him. His party was over.
"Take the day off, you two. I gotta go home and think this thing over." He turned his head slowly to the wall where he'd pinned the obituary. He tore it off and turned to me, "Tell ya what, this town's gonna be a hell of a lot better off without creeps like that Manny Springer."